Dec 092018
 

Today is Anna’s Day in Sweden, which is both a name day celebrating people named Anna, and the day to start the preparation process of the lutefisk to be served on Christmas Eve.

OK – my sister is named Anna, so that’s a good start. I’m not going to write a post on her, but here’s her picture from facebook.

Then there’s Anna Harriette Emma Leonowens, an Anglo-Indian or Indian-born British travel writer, educator and social activist, who became well known with the publication of her memoirs, beginning with The English Governess at the Siamese Court (1870), which chronicled her experiences in Siam (modern Thailand), as teacher to the children of the Siamese King Mongkut, fictionalised in Margaret Landon’s 1944 best-selling novel Anna and the King of Siam, as well as films and television series based on the book, most notably Rodgers and Hammerstein’s 1951 hit musical The King and I.

There’s Anna May Wong, the first Hong Kong-Chinese American Hollywood movie star, as well as the first Chinese American actress to gain international recognition, which is actually a cheat because she was born Wong Liu Tsong.

There’s also Anna Pavlova and Anna Freud who have posts here, and an alarming number of 19th century serial killers, as well as Russian tennis players and gymnasts. Maybe they are all named after Anna Karenina?

Let’s now turn to lutefisk. Garrison Keillor has this to say about lutefisk in his memories of Minnesota:

Every Advent we entered the purgatory of lutefisk, a repulsive gelatinous fishlike dish that tasted of soap and gave off an odor that would gag a goat. We did this in honor of Norwegian ancestors, much as if survivors of a famine might celebrate their deliverance by feasting on elm bark. I always felt the cold creeps as Advent approached, knowing that this dread delicacy would be put before me and I’d be told, “Just have a little.” Eating a little was like vomiting a little, just as bad as a lot.

The description “fishlike” is incorrect. It is not like fish, it is fish. His sentiment about it, however, is fairly widespread, including in Scandinavia. There are Scandinavians who love it, and those who hate it. There is no middle ground. I suspect that it is more popular among ex-pats at Christmas nowadays than among those living in Scandinavia where roast pork and roast turkey are common Christmas Eve treats.

Lutefisk is dried whitefish (normally cod, but ling and burbot are also used) treated with lye. The first step is soaking the stockfish in cold water for five to six days (with the water changed daily). The saturated stockfish is then soaked in an unchanged solution of cold water and lye for an additional two days. The fish swells during this soaking, and its protein content decreases by more than 50 percent, producing a jelly-like consistency. When this treatment is finished, the fish (saturated with lye) is caustic, with a pH of 11–12. To make the fish edible, a final treatment of yet another four to six days of soaking in cold water (also changed daily) is needed. Eventually, the lutefisk is ready to be cooked.

After the preparation, the lutefisk is saturated with water and must therefore be cooked extremely carefully so that it does not fall to pieces. To create a firm consistency in lutefisk, it is common to spread a layer of salt over the fish about half an hour before it is cooked. This will release some of the water in the fish. The salt must be rinsed off carefully before cooking. Lutefisk does not need additional water for the cooking; it is sufficient to place it in a pan, salt it, seal the lid tightly, and let it steam cook under a very low heat for 20–25 minutes. An alternative is to wrap in aluminium foil and bake at 225 °C (435 °F) for 40–50 minutes. Another option is to parboil lutefisk; wrapped in cheesecloth and gently boiled until tender. Lutefisk can also be boiled directly in a pan of water.

When cooking and eating lutefisk, it is important to clean the lutefisk and its residue off pans, plates, and utensils immediately. Lutefisk left overnight becomes nearly impossible to remove. Sterling silver should never be used in the cooking, serving or eating of lutefisk, which will permanently ruin silver. Stainless steel utensils are recommended instead.

In Sweden and Finland lutefisk is a part of the Christmas tradition and is mostly eaten with boiled potatoes, green peas and white sauce. Regional variations include a sprinkle of freshly ground allspice or black pepper and the addition of coarsely ground mustard in the white sauce (in Scania). In parts of Jämtland it is served on flat bread along with whey cheese.

In the United States lutefisk is often served with a variety of side dishes, including bacon, peas, pea stew, potatoes, lefse, gravy, mashed rutabaga, white sauce, melted or clarified butter, syrup, and geitost, or “old” cheese (gammelost). It is sometimes eaten with meatballs, which is not traditional in Scandinavia. Side dishes vary greatly from family to family and region to region, and can be a source of jovial contention when eaters of different “traditions” of lutefisk dine together.

Lutefisk prepared from cod is somewhat notorious, even in Scandinavia, for its intensely offensive odor. Conversely, lutefisk prepared from pollock or haddock emits almost no odor. The taste of well-prepared lutefisk is very mild, and the white sauce is often spiced with pepper or other strong-tasting spices. In Minnesota, this method (seasoned with allspice) is common among Swedish-Americans, while Norwegian-Americans often prefer to eat it unseasoned with melted butter or cream sauce.

There are many wholly apocryphal stories about the origin of lutefisk.  The one that amuses me claims that St. Patrick attempted to poison Viking raiders in Ireland with lye-soaked fish, but rather than kill them, the Vikings relished the fish and declared it a delicacy.

Jun 082017
 

On this date in 793 Vikings sacked the monastery on Lindisfarne Island off the coast of Northumbria beginning a period of around 70 years when Norse warriors routinely pillaged monasteries along Britain’s and Ireland’s coastlines. Vikings had actually landed on Portland Isle, off the south coast of the kingdom of Wessex, in 789 and had killed the port’s reeve, but this event is not counted as a full blooded raid by historians.  Lindisfarne was; kicking off a series of Norse raids, that were not invasions because the Norsemen simply plundered and left.  This state of affairs changed in 866 when Viking troops conquered York and settled there, beginning a 200 year period of Norse control of various parts of Britain until Duke William of Normandy, himself a descendant of Vikings, moved into England and put a stop to further conquests from Scandinavia.

The monastery of Lindisfarne was founded by Irish monk Saint Aidan, who had been sent from Iona off the west coast of Scotland to Northumbria at the request of King Oswald. The priory was founded before the end of 634 and Aidan remained there until his death in 651. The priory remained the only seat of a bishopric in Northumbria for nearly 30 years. Finian (bishop 651–661) built a timber church “suitable for a bishop’s seat.” Bede however was critical of the fact that the church was not built of stone but only of hewn oak thatched with reeds. A later bishop, Eadbert removed the thatch and covered both walls and roof in lead.

Lindisfarne became the base for Christian evangelism in the North of England and also sent a successful mission to Mercia. Monks from the Irish community of Iona settled on the island. Northumbria’s patron saint, Saint Cuthbert, was a monk and later abbot of the monastery, and his miracles and life are recorded by Bede. Cuthbert later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. An anonymous life of Cuthbert written at Lindisfarne is the oldest extant piece of English historical writing. From its reference to “Aldfrith, who now reigns peacefully” it must date to between 685 and 704. Cuthbert was buried there, but his remains were later translated to Durham Cathedral (along with the relics of Saint Eadfrith of Lindisfarne). Eadberht of Lindisfarne, the next bishop (and saint) was buried in the place from which Cuthbert’s body was exhumed earlier the same year when the priory was abandoned in the late 9th century.

Cuthbert’s body was carried with the monks, eventually settling in Chester-le-Street before a final move to Durham. The saint’s shrine was the major pilgrimage center for much of the region until its destruction by Henry VIII’s commissioners in 1539 or 1540. The grave was preserved however and when opened in 1827 yielded a number of remarkable artefacts dating back to Lindisfarne. The inner (of three) coffins was of incised wood, the only decorated wood to survive from the period. It shows Jesus surrounded by the Four Evangelists. Within the coffin was a pectoral cross, 2.5” across, made of gold and mounted with garnets and intricate tracery. There was a comb made of elephant ivory, a rare and expensive item in Northern England. Also inside was an embossed silver covered travelling altar. All were contemporary with the original burial on the island. When the body was placed in the shrine in 1104 other items were removed: a paten, scissors and a chalice of gold and onyx. Most remarkable of all was a gospel (known as the St Cuthbert Gospel or Stonyhurst Gospel from its association with the college). The manuscript is in an early, probably original, binding beautifully decorated with deeply embossed leather.

Following Finian’s death, Colman became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Up to this point the Northumbrian (and later Mercian) churches had looked to Lindisfarne as the mother church. There were significant liturgical and theological differences with the fledgling Roman party based at Canterbury. The Synod of Whitby in 663 changed this. Allegiance switched southwards to Canterbury and thence to Rome. Colman departed his see for Iona and Lindisfarne ceased to be of such major importance.

In 735 the northern ecclesiastical province of England was established with the archbishopric at York. There were only three bishops under York: Hexham, Lindisfarne and Whithorn whereas Canterbury had the twelve envisaged by St. Augustine. The Diocese of York encompassed roughly the modern counties of Yorkshire and Lancashire. Hexham covered County Durham and the southern part of Northumberland up to the River Coquet and eastwards into the Pennines. Whithorn covered most of Dumfries and Galloway region west of Dumfries itself. The remainder, Cumbria, northern Northumbria, Lothian and much of the Kingdom of Strathclyde formed the diocese of Lindisfarne.

 

At some point in the early 8th century, the famous illuminated manuscript known as the Lindisfarne Gospels, an illustrated Latin copy of the Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke and John, was made probably at Lindisfarne and the artist was possibly Eadfrith, who later became Bishop of Lindisfarne. Some time in the second half of the 10th century a monk named Aldred added an Anglo-Saxon gloss to the Latin text, producing the earliest surviving Old English copies of the Gospels. Aldred attributed the original to Eadfrith (bishop 698–721). The Gospels were written with a good hand, but it is the illustrations done in an insular style containing a fusion of Celtic, Germanic and Roman elements that are outstanding. According to Aldred, Eadfrith’s successor Æthelwald was responsible for pressing and binding it and then it was covered with a fine metal case made by a hermit called Billfrith.

The 793 Viking raid on Lindisfarne caused consternation throughout the Christian west and is now often taken as the beginning of the Viking Age. The D and E versions of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle record:

Her wæron reðe forebecna cumene ofer Norðhymbra land, þæt folc earmlic bregdon, þæt wæron ormete þodenas  ligrescas, fyrenne dracan wæron gesewene on þam lifte fleogende. Þam tacnum sona fyligde mycel hunger, litel æfter þam, þæs ilcan geares on .vi. Idus Ianuarii, earmlice hæþenra manna hergunc adilegode Godes cyrican in Lindisfarnaee þurh hreaflac mansliht.

In this year fierce, foreboding omens came over the land of the Northumbrians, and the wretched people shook; there were excessive whirlwinds, lightning, and fiery dragons were seen flying in the sky. These signs were followed by great famine, and a little after those, that same year on 6th [day before the] ides of January, the ravaging of wretched heathen people destroyed God’s church at Lindisfarne.

The generally accepted date for the Viking raid on Lindisfarne is in fact 8 June. Historian Michael Swanton writes: “vi id Ianr, presumably [is] an error for vi id Iun (8 June) which is the date given by the Annals of Lindisfarne, when better sailing weather would favour coastal raids.”

Alcuin, a Northumbrian scholar in Charlemagne’s court at the time, wrote:

Never before has such terror appeared in Britain as we have now suffered from a pagan race … The heathens poured out the blood of saints around the altar, and trampled on the bodies of saints in the temple of God, like dung in the streets.

As the English became more settled inland they lost interest in defending the coastline. Many monasteries were established on islands, peninsulas, river mouths and cliffs because these isolated communities were less susceptible to interference and the politics of the heartland. This isolation and lack of defenses left the wealthy monastic communities completely open to and defenseless against raids from the sea.

The first Norse raids on the English northeastern coast, unsettling as they were, were not followed up. The main body of Norse raiders soon passed north around Scotland. The 9th century invasions came from the Danes from around the entrance to the Baltic. The first Danish raids into England were in the Isle of Sheppey, Kent during 835 and from there their influence spread north. During this period religious art continued to flourish on Lindisfarne.

The monks of Lindisfarne were legendary for their production of mead, a drink made from fermenting honey that has a long and storied history throughout Europe. You can get various styles of mead produced on Lindisfarne these days, but the recipe is a modern one.  No old recipes exist.  Let’s skirt that problem by making chicken in mead, a variant of chicken in wine or beer.

© Chicken in Mead

Ingredients

1 3-4 lb chicken, cut into 8 serving pieces
1 onion, peeled and chopped
1 bottle mead
1 tbsp chopped fresh parsley
salt and pepper
flour
1 tbsp butter (or olive oil)

Instructions

Dredge the chicken pieces in flour by placing about one-half cup of flour seasoned with salt and pepper to taste in a heavy brown paper bag along with the chicken pieces. Fold the top over tightly, leaving air in the bag.  Shake vigorously for 30 seconds, then open the bag and remove the dredge chicken pieces to a rack.

Melt the butter in a heavy skillet over medium-high heat and add the onion. Cook until soft and then add the chicken pieces, a few at a time, and sauté until golden on all sides.

If possible, make one layer of the golden chicken pieces in the skillet and cover with mead. Add the parsley, bring to a simmer and cook covered for 15 minutes. Uncover and turn the heat to high.  Let the mead reduce until it forms a thick glaze.  Turn the chicken pieces around in the glaze to cover and serve.